Will the young save the planet?

Published: September 30, 2019
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The world’s youth have given up on the older generation. They have come to the conclusion that those who hold the reins of power around the globe don’t have the political will or the understanding to save the globe from a climate-warming catastrophe. If the youth wanted a voice, they found it in Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who addressed world leaders in New York as they gathered to attend the annual session of the United Nations. Earlier, travelling by boat from London to the United States, she had addressed the US Congress. To coincide with this meeting, the United Nations agency responsible for climate policies sought to revive the world’s interest in adopting concrete policies to arrest global warming. The United Nations Climate Action Summit was held on Monday, September 23 to which all world leaders were invited.

Donald Trump, the Unites States’ President, after declining the invitation showed up for only 14 minutes. America’s lack of interest was in sharp contrast to its approach when in 2015 it took the lead in pushing other countries including China to sign the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Trump has indicated that it intends to withdraw from the agreement. His administration has also weakened or repealed a number of climate related policies adopted by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Even the automobile industry supports the Obama initiative. Trump is determined to weaken the gasoline consumption standards for automobiles.

Thunberg underscored the contrast between the slow pace of action and the urgency of the problem. “People are dying; entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” she said, her voice quavering with rage. “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.” While former president Barack Obama had heaped praise on the Swede, calling her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates”, she drew vicious attacks from the American right. Dinesh D’Souza, an Indian American, was particularly insulting in his remarks, calling her one of the “children — notably Nordic white girls with braids and red cheeks — who were often used in Nazi propaganda. An old Goebbels technique!” he wrote.

The Summit was held at a time when the latest science showed that the world was getting hotter. Extreme weather events were occurring more frequently. These included hurricanes, cyclones, floods and draughts. Seas were rising and becoming warmer.

The world is getting hotter faster. The World Meteorological Organization concluded in its latest report that the period 2014 to 2019 was the warmest on record. Emissions of carbon dioxide were at record highs. What is remarkable about 2019’s record is that it came in the absence of a strong El Nino event in the Tropical Pacific Ocean. Such events tend to increase global temperatures by sending more heat into the atmosphere. Instead, a weak El Nino has been present at times during 2019. The average global temperature is 1.1 degrees Celsius higher than what it was in the mid-19th century and unless action is taken to reverse the trend, it will be 3 degrees Celsius higher by the end of this century. This will be twice the limit the Paris Accord set for the world to meet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculates that 2019 is likely to be between the second and fourth warmest year on record for the globe, with a near certainty of a top five warmest year.

Studies show that if carbon dioxide and methane emissions continue to rise at their current rate, the number of people needing humanitarian aid as a result of natural disasters could double by 2050. A large number of the affected people will be in South Asia. But rich nations will not be spared. A report from 13 United States federal agencies issued in 2018 warned that failing to rein in global warming could shave off 10% of the country’s economy by the century’s end. However, the Trump administration downplayed the finding.

Ahead of the Climate Summit, 200 major investors managing a combined $6.5 trillion in assets demanded that companies stop lobbying for policies that harm the climate. They targeted the oil and gas companies in particular. The world’s biggest energy companies devoted just one per cent of their capital investment to low-carbon energy sources. The energy companies held their own event in New York to coincide with the World Summit. At this meeting they pushed their research on carbon capturing technologies as one way of dealing with the problem. However, in a 2018 report, the European Academies Science Advisory Council said carbon removal offered only “limited realistic potential”. According to the United Nations oil and gas production needs to fall by about 20% by 2030 and by almost 55% by 2050 in order to stop the Earth’s temperature rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The youth’s activity may have helped to highlight the dangers the planet faces but ultimately it is the grown-ups holding positions of authority in both the public and private sectors who will have to move to deal with the worsening situation. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist who has written extensively on the subject of global warming, impressed by the youth’s activism, wrote, “In this era when so much activism is online, when was the last time you saw a bottom-up mass movement of young people in America and across the world — some four million in all — take to the streets on every continent as they did.” Good leadership could make use of this initiative by the young. “In the 1960s, John F Kennedy energized the country behind a “space war”: to make America the first nation to put a man on the moon,” wrote Friedman. “Democrats need to run against Trump on the Earth Race: to make America the leader in all policies and technologies that help men and women everywhere live sustainably here on Earth. These young people are telling us and their voting parents that this issue is a political winner — theirs is a movement in search of courageous political leaders.” But they won’t find this in the Republican Party that Trump leads. Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2019.

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